Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: A Sense of Belonging

"If we ever move from Madison can we move some place where I'm not the only Chamorro in my class?"


There are so many underlying microdynamics in Misa's question.  I felt her words so I probed a little.  Afterwards, I felt pained and wrote a poem.  Then a letter to myself.  Then I got on the internet and searched for teaching jobs on Guam.  I followed this up with a look at the census bureau to find out where other Chamorros are living.  I reminisced and recalled my childhood when I never thought about other kids looking like me because well, we all kind of looked like each other.  

What is it Misa feels but cannot exactly articulate?  If what she's feeling at 10 years old is similar to what I felt at 18 when I moved from the familiar to the not-so-familiar, then let me say that it's all recognizable - that sense of powerlessness, self-consciousness, intimidation - for being born as who she is experiencing things in a place that belies acceptance and transparency.

So what is the 'so what' of this experience?  Just 5 months ago at the end of last school year a team from my school was starting the transition process with the 4 elementary schools that feed into Sherman Middle School.  The primary goal was to gather as much information about each incoming 5th grader in order to create balanced teaching teams.  I'm talking about strategically looking at all aspects of the child in terms of academic levels and behavioral needs, language, ethnicity, and gender.

Admittedly, I initially balked at the time consuming effort this involved.  Interviews at the elementary schools with 5th grade teachers followed by meetings to make decisions that included recapping the child's needs which inevitably led to short discussions about the match-up - that entire process was just too much for me to imagine conducting at the end of the school year.  And anyway as a public school teacher, I've always been of the mind that you get what you get cause we teach 'em all.

That's true, still.

But after going through the process, and having met the 54 students in my classes, I could not be more thankful that there's a transition team in place.  What I learned was that each and every incoming 5th grade student was given remarkably careful attention.  What we discussed was that perhaps a "quirky" kid ought to be with at least one other kid with similar unique traits.  I discovered that there are kids who are really supportive of kids with specific special needs and that perhaps they should stay together.    I helped make decisions about academic placements so the wildly varying learning needs were balanced for proper differentiation.  We talked about kids of color - in particular, Hmong, Latino and African kids having others of the same ethnicity in the same class.  And in fact, it was pretty cool when a Pacific Islander was intentionally placed on my team.

I bring up this transition process as a way to give thanks that I was part of a process that was culturally, ethnically, academically, and - most of all - dynamically aware.   It's not all perfect, but it's sensitive and intentional.  After thinking about what Misa's question really meant, I empathized for her and for other young students who have felt uncomfortable or oppressed or out-of-place or intimidated or insufficient.  I mean, I know how it feels as an adult, but I don't really know what this feels like for a 10 year old. So in the spirit of this - that as grown-ups, we can find and build a sense of belonging no matter what, I conducted my own question and answer session using just a few questions I've been asked over time. . .

1) What would you say to a kid who says s/he feels "out of place"?   What if it's a kid of color - what would you do?  

Me: There are no right answers.  I am most comfortable sticking to addressing what I know, which is that I'm a minority from the island of Guam and a Pacific Islander and sometimes it's just hard to be the only one.  I can infer that at times, Misa feels disempowered so it might be confusing for her when her sense of belonging becomes an issue.  I would love it if educators would learn about the cultures of kids they teach and not just on a cursory or surface level - but really learned about them.  And what I would do is continue to do the personal work to unlearn internalized racism that has altered who I am.  Maybe that kind of work will in turn help Misa's sense of belonging.

2) What would you say or do when a kid of color stands out for being naughty?

Me:  I'm assuming you're referring to discipline and I'm assuming you're asking this because you've been called a racist or want to prevent this from happening?  Well.  Discipline means "to teach," and the purpose of setting limits is to help kids manage those moments when they feel powerless.  To be real, lets take race out of this - most of my students come with their own baggage.  However, I'm of the mind that I need to promote kids' commitment to learning, and more than that, to help kids learn and understand the value of being fair and just and how to navigate the world through those lenses.  So I'd discipline him or her with equity and fairness, as I do my own.

3) What resources are there to help understand the subtleties and dynamics around race?

Me: Tons, and lots of credible authors.  But just take a tour of MMSD and surrounding districts and private schools as well, and observe what you see.  Come to my school if you want to see the differences that exist on the east and west sides of this small city and you can take note of how geography has an impact on institutionalized racism.  Go to Misa's classroom to witness student life, and while there, look to your left and right and see where kids of color are placed.  As happy and engaged as Misa is - and as satisfied as I am with her learning in that school, there are some race-related problems in that building. And to answer the question - consider pursuing topics about cultural differences, development of kids and adolescents, racism and its effects on White people and people of color, personal narratives and memoirs from poets, artists, musicians and the hip hop community.

Actively pursue a venue with older folks of color where race, ethnicity, and cultures are discussed.  You can learn a lot.  Maybe even be transformed.  Draw upon the insights of others.  My former teaching colleague and dear friend, Ms. Matson could hands down, address the underlying microdynamics of Misa's question in a frank and open way.  She'd remind me that her walk was long and at times really, really terrible, but as a pillar of resiliency and wisdom, she would tell me to never diminish Misa's feelings about being different.  I know that my search for being me as an educator and parent came from a strong mentorship by Ms. Matson.

Above all, the main thing is to stay open and listen to the words from your kids and students - from the witty and blunt to the abstract and linear, to the words that seem small or inconsequential and even to the torrential rain of words that seem like blather.  Listen and then do something to cultivate their sense of belonging.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Connections to Professional Development: Spoken Word and Beatboxing

At the start of the school year there was one thing I felt absolutely compelled to do, and that was to start a Spoken Word-Beatboxing club.  Together with my colleague Richard Henderson, we're 4 sessions in and getting our rhythm down.  Here's our first piece . . .

Spoken Word and Beatboxing from Vera Naputi on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Home and Place: Capturing it in Art, Natural Beauty, and Relationships

Sometime last spring around March, I was mesmerized by the sighting of a Great Grey Owl that took up residency outside of Madison. Although that bird has moved on, I was thankful for the photo Jeremy Hemberger captured, one that created a long-lasting impression in my mind.  I've known Jeremy for several years, primarily as a climber and after seeing his photos, I wanted to know how he uses the art of photography to capture home and place.  I love how he tells his story, especially how his "home-life" unfolded - circumstances many can relate to.  Mostly though, his message of capturing home and place is candid, forthright, and pretty sweet.  See some of his good work below his bio at the bottom of this post.  Read on and enjoy! 

Middleton, Wisconsin.  Cross Plains, Wisconsin.  Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.  New Glarus, Wisconsin.  Platteville, Wisconsin.  Madison, Wisconsin.  I suppose I agree with Todd’s first assessment (see his post below) of how we see places we call home: Geographic localities – places on the map that to us bring feelings of place and purpose.  Places where we grew up, where we shared memories (both good and bad). My homes have changed frequently over my young life.  My parents were never married.  While one stayed in the same place (Middleton), the other spiraled further and further away from my school and homes where my friends lived.  During my young life, I struggled with this concept as I saw all of my friends coming and going from the same place every day; whereas I never really knew whose house I was going to that night.  I was at two households sporadically through the week, with the balance of my time spent at my best friend Daniel's house.  His family built yet another place that I call home - treating me as if I was their own son.

Looking back at this and I think it made me who I am.  My vastly different experiences in two households often in different geographies of the state (relatively speaking) exposed me to a lot of people, places, and ideas.  But it was through my father and our adventures when I was a kid that I was brought closer to the place I know I can always call home: the natural world. 

For twenty-four years, I have been hooked to the places that allow me to take in the beauty and be inspired by Mother Nature’s brilliance.  Often when I say this, people assume I am talking about the National Parks, The Redwoods, Mt. Everest - the places where the most pristine landscapes we know of still exist unmolested.  I have been fortunate enough to visit some of these places.  I have stood in the stands of the mighty Redwoods and felt for the first time a sense of insignificance.  Walking delicately among the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, I caught a glimpse of the forces that helped to sculpt this incredible planet.  While these landscapes fill us with awe and marvel, they helped me to see something else.

When I returned from the trips that brought me face to face with these natural wonders, my views toward my home surroundings changed.  It wasn’t a feeling of desolation – a sort disappointment with my surroundings as compared to the great places I have been.  Rather, it was a respect and ability to see profound beauty in anything that surrounded me.  The pond across the street from my grandparents where I spent the better part of my young life took became a new playground again.  The marshes, woodlots, and state parks became extensions of my home.  I started searching for a way to capture this beauty and how I felt about it.  I began using the only media I knew I could do justice with - photographs. 

While I had used a camera in the past to preserve memories and places I had visited, it now became a different type of implement.  Before it had been a tool, and it now was becoming my pen, brush, or clay.  My artistic goal wasn’t abstract or shrouded in mystery.  I simply wanted to help others see the beauty that lay in front of them every day.  This type of message, I thought, could change how people see the world and perhaps foster a deeper respect, in much of the same way the Redwoods did for me. 

I am by no means an amazing photographer.  I stumble through self-taught, experimenting, and spending far too much money.  My photos are of things some may consider everyday images or wildlife.  That’s often true.  But I still capture these because I do want people to see what beauty lies just outside their door.
Wisconsin has always been outside my front door.  The culture, people, University, family, and friends all make me feel like I belong.  I have become a part of new communities over the years that have further set my foundation here.  Recently I have begun whole new chapter of my life as a graduate student here in Madison.  Perhaps most important to me though, is that I have started a whole new home with the person I love the most.  While this place is still in Madison, sharing it with someone you care about so much makes it a whole new experience. 

As the months go on, though, there will come a time when it is time for me to move on - to set down new foundations in new communities.  I don't know when this will be, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't afraid.  Despite my fears, I know that there will always be something to comfort me wherever I go.  I will always be able to marvel at and capture her beauty flying overhead, towering over me, flowing in front of me.  And when I do feel far away from home, I will have an incredible girl next to me who reminds me, that I am at home whenever we're together.  

Jeremy is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin studying entomology.  When not chasing insects around, he can be found at the climbing gym, on his mountain bike, out taking photographs, or eating donuts and enjoying time with family and friends.  To see some of his photography, or to learn about his research and academic pursuits, please visit